Italy in times of protest and negative voting: An introduction

Diego Garzia, University of Lausanne

Gianluca Passarelli, University Sapienza Rome

Elections are decisive and crucial for democracy and the political system. However, the drivers of electoral behaviour have changed over time. The relationship between parties and voters/citizens has weakened, and in some contexts even dramatically. Due to the intertwined processes of social modernization, increasing de-ideologization, the weakening of parties’ organizations, and the resulting partisan dealignment trend, individual short-terms factors have progressively replaced structural determinants of voters’ decision.

Voters nowadays are increasingly more likely to cast their ballots based on the assessment of candidates and party leaders, the evaluation of the economy, and the proposals put forward in the political campaign. This move towards a disintermediated electorate has apparently resulted (also) in rising levels of negativity against incumbents, mainstream parties, and/or representative democracy altogether. Comparative analyses have uncovered a long-term development of increasing dis-trust in political parties and leaders across the West-ern world (van der Meer, 2017). Moreover, a progressive weakening in party–voter linkages was amplified by, e.g., the decline of traditional ideologies, the decline of party membership, as well as the increase in electoral abstention (Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000; Dalton, 1996). Voters’ loyalty to parties has dramatically decreased and most of the political systems faced a process of partisan dealignment, where short time factors have replaced the ideologically driven mass parties (Garzia et al., 2020).

A diffused discontent towards parties and politics has grown, and also the democratic system has been challenged by a wave of protest and mistrust.Among the consequences of this riding tide of political distrust, it has been observed a tendency among voters to increasingly dislike parties and candidates they do not support — while becoming more ambivalent toward parties they support. Available research shows that voters’ evaluation of their own parties and candidates is stable, yet voters have come to dislike their opponents more over time (Abramowitz and Webster, 2016; Garzia and Ferreira da Silva, 2021a).Against a background of increasing animosity towards political opponents, it comes as no surprise that an increasing amount of published electoral research has moved its attention away from the determinants of ‘voting for’ a party or candidate, to focus explicitly on the underlying reasons behind citizens’ choice to cast a ‘vote against’. Several labels have been used by previous scholarship to describe largely overlapping phenomena such as protest voting (Alvarez et al., 2018) or anti-incumbent voting (Thorson and Stambough, 1995). Indeed, early rational choice scholarship conceived negative voting as a special case of retrospective voting in elections involving incumbents (Kernell, 1977).

The wear and tear of holding office increases the likelihood of discontent with presidential performance among voters, leading in turn to a higher rate of votes against the incumbent.The intuitive value of this empirically testable proposition is however counterbalanced by its inability to account for negative votes cast against the challenger, nor about the very existence of negative voting in elections involving no incumbent. As aptly summarized by Fiorina and Schepsle (1989, 424) negative voting appeared as “an observed regularity with an as-yet uncertain explanation”.Drawing from cognitive dissonance theory, a strand of psychological literature conceived negative voting as a rationalization mechanism among voters facing conflict-ing preferences between party identification, ideology and candidate assessments (Gant and Sigelman 1985; Sigelman and Gant 1989). A more recent strand of schol-arship has tackled the issue of negative voting through the lens of negative partisanship. The idea that hostility toward the out-group can develop independently from — and drive support for — the in-group is indeed at the core of the social identity perspective on negative voting (Medeiros and Noël, 2014; Abramowitz and Webster, 2016; Bankert, 2020). In parallel, research on the person-alization of politics (Poguntke and Webb 2005; Passarelli 2015; Elgie and Passarelli 2019; Garzia et al., 2020) finds that negative attitudes toward the political out-group concern not only political parties but can also spill over to individual candidates (Barisione, 2017).

Accordingly, evaluations of (out-party) candidates have been shown to also act as determinants of the vote, acting alongside positive (in-party) candidate evaluations (Garzia and Ferreira da Silva, 2021a).Taking stock of the existing empirical literature, we follow Garzia and Ferreira da Silva (2021b, 2) and summarize the tendency towards negative voting as driven by three micro-behavioural components, “namely: (1) an instrumental-rational component characterized by retrospective performance evaluations and rationalization mechanisms; (2) an ideological component grounded on long-lasting political identities; and (3) an affective component, motivated by (negative) attitudes towards parties and candidates”.


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